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The intricacies of a world with 5G

Written on Monday, 07 March 2016 08:25

Christian Bartosch, Associate Director at the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) Middle East has rich knowledge of telecom operations having spent close to thirty years in the industry. He worked at Bell Labs during a time when innovative technology such as 3G was being envisioned by Qualcomm. Bartosch then went on to work for both vendors, operators and consulting firms. He now works as a global telecoms expert at BCG, specializing in the Middle East. In the following interview, Bartosch provides an educated estimate as to what we can expect from a world with 5G.

Where does BCG fit in the realm of telecommunications?

At BCG, one of our key areas of focus is helping our clients with strategic business decisions. We advise them on when to invest, how to invest smartly, and how to align investments based maximizing the value drawn from their markets. As deep insight is becoming more and more relevant, we understand that many of our clients need hands-on help, so we have a group of about 200 big data analysts who support our work with telecommunication service providers. They analyze massive amounts of data (sometimes tens of terabytes) and support us in helping our clients in planning and optimizing their networks and service offerings.

We take into account peoples' spending behaviors, content consumption, device preference and physical and social movement patterns.  To complement the existing data, we have launched an application built by BCG (which was recently done for a big American operator) where we monitor the content consumption and network usage correlated with the demographic profile of subscribers.

From this application, we found out that between LTE and WiFi, the consumption patterns are pretty similar in the U.S. because of mainly flat mobile data plans. We also know that people today typically use about 350 kilobytes per second, and for movies consumed on mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, for everything else they use less.

In your opinion, what sort of devices can we expect to be faster and more efficient in our daily lives once 5G is implemented?

Any application which requires high bandwidth or very high network quality will benefit from 5G. For example, if it's a wireless data modem at home in an area where there is no fiber or DSL connectivity, 5G devices will function vastly more efficiently. With 5G, we will begin to see higher speeds on stationary devices that have either large batteries or access to power but also on mobile devices thanks to more efficient data transmission.

One of the major differences for 5G is that it envisions literally thousands of devices per cell. With 2G and 3G you have a limitation per cell area of the number of current devices. 5G are pushing this to the 10,000 mark. The other recognition is that with 5G you will have a lot of devices in a small physical area able to connect to the network. Therefore, 5G addresses big data, highways essentially, and a lot of very small devices that continuously supply data to the network for IoT-type applications.

Is 2020 a realistic target for when we can expect 5G to be introduced?

With 5G implementation there are three aspects to consider: will the technology be ready in time? Is there a business case? And are there devices to support it? Another aspect to consider with 5G is the use cases for the subscriber and the operator in terms of benefits and revenue.

Looking at the split of traffic, the share of video traffic is dramatically increasing, and will soon probably hit 80 percent. Just recently, the introduction of Netflix to the Australian market, for example, increased the network traffic by 25 percent. This invites the conclusion that 5G usage will be massively driven by video. The key challenge is that 5G won't change the ecosystem around video; instead, it will make video transmission smoother and more appealing for the customer, without changing the economics. 5G will certainly be trialed as a marketing hype very soon - maybe as a kind of 4.5G, but the mass roll-out is still questionable before 2020.

To reap the full cost and technical benefits of 5G with hundreds of millions of connected devices and hundred thousands of radio antennas even in medium sized networks telecom operators will need an answer to the automation of the network operations management. High video bandwidth requirements require shrinking the size of cells to reduce the distance between antenna and subscriber to less than 25 meters.

As a result, the number of cells will increase dramatically, which introduces so far unseen challenges of coordinating the performance of these cells, be it by carrier interference, cancellation, or neighborhood relationship optimization. One of the benefits of introducing 5G is that it will provide a better way of dealing with the complexity of these networks because it will offer a much higher degree of automation, compared with 4G which as of does not provide very highly automated network operations.

Can you tell us about predicted improvements to downloading time using 5G?

5G will offer lower latency and higher stability of the signal with less volatility of the speed. It will essentially allow you to transmit 8k UHD movies in real-time without buffering, streaming onto a big TV without any issues. Something to consider is that for cars, you need data mobility, and if autonomous vehicles and self-driving cars are introduced, people will want to watch movies in their cars - which will require 5G performance.

But, at home, I think that people will still mostly use fiber optic combined with Wifi. The UAE has very high fiber optic penetration, one of the highest in the world. At home or at the office, however the future WiFi, will converge with 5G and the technologies will be indistinguishable. This means a phone call at home can start on Wifi and will seamlessly transfer to 5G on the move.

Will 5G create problems with the radio spectrum?

5G will dramatically increase our ability to make use of the radio spectrum, which is scarce, especially good spectrum. Good spectrum is usually 700-900 megahertz because it has the ability to penetrate building walls and cars for example, resulting in good signal coverage and hence good user experience. But there is not a lot of it because it has to be shared between three to five different operators and typically the available total spectrum is a range of about 10 percent of the mean spectrum frequency. Thus, with two gigahertz, a much broader “channel” is available than at 900 megahertz, i.e. roughly 200MHz vs 90MHz.

The problem with higher frequency is that they do not penetrate windows and walls as effectively, especially if windows are coated with sun-reflective materials and walls are made from concrete which is the standard in this region. Hence, proper in-building antenna systems will play a major role in 5G such as distributed antenna systems (DAS) used at the recent Super Bowl in the U.S. where the antennas were essentially distributed under the stadium seats carrying upwards of 10TB during the game.

5G will address this by providing very advanced schemes of extending the spectrum efficiency, allowing us to transmit much more data. This means that, especially in many Middle Eastern countries, governments will need to reorganize the spectrum, and also release additional lower frequency spectrum. Spectrum scarcity constitutes a severe bottleneck in the introduction of 5G.

Published in Interviews